In an important Freedom of Information decision it has been ruled the names of councillors who haven’t paid their council tax should be made public.
Upper Tribunal judge Kate Markus QC said there had been an error in law by in the previous tribunal and Information Commissioner’s Office decision and the name should be disclosed.
Subsequently, three years after making the original FOI request the Bolton News revealed that Labour councillor Ismail Ibrahim was at the heart of the council’s ‘tax scandal’.
An original request by the newspaper asked for information about councillors that hadn’t paid council tax six May 2011; it was said six councillors hadn’t paid and two had been summoned to court. A subsequent request, and the one that got appealed, was made by the newspaper for the names of those two councillors. One was Ibrahim and the other voluntarily disclosed his name when the case first received publicity.
The decision by the tribunal judge is, naturally, one with several complex parts to it. It refers to Section 40 of the FOI Act, which provides an exemption for personal data. The exemption is heavily intertwined with the Data Protection Act and whether it is fair to disclose the personal details of an individual*. For those looking for a more technical analysis than this one 11KBW’s information law blog will have you covered.
In essence non-payment of council tax has a “significant public dimension” as it means that a councillor isn’t legally allowed to vote at council meetings.
The council argued that the non-payment of the council tax was mostly a private issue. It was written in the tribunal judgement that the matter is partly private it relates to a private property and”it is a matter of a private debt in respect oh which the individual incurs a private liability”.
However, the tribunal judgment points out that section 106 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 says a councillor cannot vote of a budget if they have an outstanding council tax debt of more than two months. It then goes on to say that “If a councillor is present at any meeting at which relevant matter are discussed, he or she must disclose that section 106 applies and may not vote.”
“Thus council tax default strikes at the heart of the performance of a councillor’s functions,” Markus said. The judge went on to say that as one vote could be the difference between a vote succeeding or failing it is crucial to a councillor being able to do their job properly.
“Moreover…” the judgement said, “recent failure to pay council tax is likely to impact on public perceptions and confidence in a councillor as a public figure”.
If the public were not able to know what councillors weren’t able to discharge their functions properly then the would be able to scrutinise the elected official or “whether they can trust a councillor properly”.
In the decision over whether it would be fair for a councillor who has been summoned over council tax to be named Markus said: “it is not reasonable for a councillor to expect not to be identified”. The judgement goes on to say that a councillor should expect to be scrutinised and held accountable for their actions when they are relevant to public office.
In a damning paragraph the whole decision is summed up:
“There is a compelling legitimate interest in the public knowing whether a particular councillor has failed to pay the council tax, at least in the circumstances where they have remained in default for over two months with the result that section 106 applies. In most cases this compelling interest will outweigh the councillor’s personal privacy. The public interest in knowing the information is central to the proper functioning and transparency of the democratic process. The identification of a defaulting councillor involves an intrusion into his private life but it is an intrusion that a councillor must be taken to have accepted when taking office.”
*For those who have a detailed knowledge, this post is meant to be a basic summary; I’m aware this is heavily simplified.